HELENA, Montana — Mental health counselors and families of children involved with child protective services told Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday that they wanted to see wholesale changes within the state agency.
Bullock listened intently as counselors called for more training for caseworkers and families asked that they be respected instead of bullied. Some called for the resignations of key administrators within the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The governor declined to hear details of specific cases, saying it would be a "disservice to substitute my judgment for what the courts are saying," but told those in attendance that there was nothing more important than keeping kids safe and that he wanted to hear ideas to make the Division of Child and Family Services better.
"We're more than willing to help, but it has to change," said counselor Robin Castle of Great Falls. She said caseworkers need more education and training and should respect the recommendations of trained counselors rather than blackballing those they disagree with.
My recommendations "go in one ear and out of the other, but the more I fight, the more I am retaliated against," said Castle, who said the agency is withholding payments for her services and won't refer new cases to her. Counselor Patty Jaracezski said she has faced similar consequences for disagreeing with agency opinions.
"They are the most corrupt, powerful agency in the state," Jaracezski said.
Several of those in attendance said caseworkers should lose their jobs if they threaten families.
"Retaliation is not OK," said Ali Bovingdon, the governor's deputy chief of staff. The department has instituted a new policy requiring retaliation reports to be investigated by the agency's human resources department, she said.
Jay Walton said he is fighting the agency's placement of his grandson with the boy's biological father. A caseworker in 2007 determined the man had abused his daughter. He was never charged. The man's attorney, Pat Paul, has said his client did not wish to comment.
Walton, however, was charged with contempt of court for sharing a confidential Child and Family Services report about the girl's very specific allegations.
Bovingdon and Tara Veazey, the governor's health policy adviser, promised to look into their concerns and recommendations.
Group members promised to continue their picketing of DCFS offices around the state until they see improvements.